Adolf Hitler, who became Germany’s supreme political and military leader, was actually born in Braunau am Inn, a small town in neighboring Austria. An unexceptional student, Hitler moved to Vienna after his mother’s death in 1907 (his father had died in 1903). He aspired to be an artist, but his hopes were dashed when he was denied entry to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts for two consecutive years. For a time, he eked out a living by painting postcards. When World War I erupted in 1914, he volunteered to fight for Germany. In war, Hitler distinguished himself in service and was awarded two Iron Crosses for bravery.
After Germany’s defeat in the war, Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, soon renamed the National Socialist German Workers’, or Nazi , Party. By mid-1921, Hitler was gaining a reputation for delivering dynamic speeches and had become the party’s clear leader. After an unsuccessful attempt to start a revolution in Munich (the Beer Hall Putsch ), Hitler was arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason. In prison, he dictated the autobiographical text, Mein Kampf, outlining his ideologies and political aspirations, including his racist sentiments about Jews and his belief in Aryan superiority.
Once freed, Hitler went to work rebuilding the Nazi Party. The global economic depression in 1929, as well as German resentment over harsh reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, increased the Nazis’ popularity and by 1932, the party was a powerful political force. On January 30, 1933, Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Hitler chancellor. When Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler fused the chancellorship and the presidency, anointed himself the “ führer ,”and established a totalitarian dictatorship, which he called the Third Reich .
Focused on reestablishing Germany as a great European power, Hitler began planning the country’s rearmament and territorial expansion. Between 1936 and 1939, in a series of increasingly aggressive moves, Germany occupied the Rhineland, invaded and annexed Austria, and annexed and seized Czechoslovakia. Hitler then ordered the September 1, 1939, attack on Poland , setting off World War II. During the war years, Hitler insisted on exercising ever greater control; he frequently disregarded the opinions of his military advisers and, in December 1941, he took direct command of the German army. Under his leadership, the Nazis carried out a policy of genocide they called “the Final Solution ,”which cost the lives of around six million Jews in Europe. Millions of others opposed to the Third Reich or deemed undesirable were also targeted for forced labor and extermination.
On April 30, 1945, with the Soviet army in Berlin and the war lost, Hitler shot himself in his underground bunker. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.